José Saramago, the Portuguese writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1998 with novels that combine surrealist experimentation and a kind of sardonic peasant pragmatism, has died at his home in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, his publisher said on Friday. He was 87. – New York Times
“The following day, no one died. This fact, being absolutely contrary to life’s rules, provoked enormous and, in the circumstances, perfectly justifiable anxiety in people’s minds, for we have only to consider that in the entire forty volumes of universal history there is no mention, not even one exemplary case, of such a phenomenon ever having occurred, for a whole day to go by, with its generous allowance of twenty-four hours, diurnal and nocturnal, matutinal and vespertine, without one death from an illness, a fatal fall, or a successful suicide, not on, not a single one.”
What a way to open a book.
First, in this land of no death, there is joy and celebration. But immortality isn’t everything that it’s cut out to be. The hiccups emerge. The undertakers are concerned with the lack of business, the hospitals worry about the pile-up of patients. And families begin to wonder about their dying relatives, now not given a chance to expire. One family stumbles upon the idea of bringing their dying relatives over to the neighbouring country, and that catches on, the government frowns upon it (while at the same time, is pleased as it solves a lot of problems) and things get a big complicated and the maphia steps in (“Why the ph, To distinguish us from the original mafia”).
I hate to say this, as I do love what I’ve previously read by Saramago, but the first half of Death With Interruptions was a bit dry. There wasn’t a central character to relate to and for a book that is concerned with the not-dying, it oddly didn’t make me ponder the issue of death and dying.
Now the second half of the book is far more enjoyable. death (with the small ‘d’) is the central character. She explains in a letter why she went on strike and begins a new practice of warning people – in the form of violet-enveloped letters – a week before their deaths.But one letter keeps coming back. She is intrigued, as it is a new experience for death, and visits with the not-dead cellist, first merely to observe, later to meet him.
Saramago’s version of death is quite different. First, death is female. She does have a scythe, which she talks to. She’s not averse to email: “perhaps I’ll try it some day, but until then, I’ll continue to write with pen, paper and ink, it has the charm of tradition, and tradition counts for a lot when it comes to dying”. death is a great character. She is sympathetic, curious, thoughtful.
The thing with Saramago is that he both frustrates and enthralls. His long sentences meander their way to you, wordy yes but what a sight. It does mean that such concentration is required when reading Saramago, especially his dialogue as the speech of characters is divided only by commas, Confusing, Yes isn’t it, but also quite genius. Saramago’s writing perhaps makes me forgive the relative dryness of his first half, as does the delightful death.
This is my European (Portugal) read for the Reading The World Challenge